Discussion: Snubbing the Book Snobs

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Snobbery.  In trying to define the quality, I fell down a bit of a rabbit-hole.  The dictionary defined snobbery as ‘snobbish conduct or character’ and routed me to ‘snobbishness’.  Looking up ‘snobbishness’, I came to the description ‘being, characteristic of, or befitting a snob’.  Finally, I got to ‘snob’, or ‘a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.’  The figure of the Snob has become an object of ridicule, a Brian-Sewell-esque figure sniffing over a wine list and huffing that the lower classes just do not know their place these days.  If that meant that snobbery had been vanquished, that would be one thing. Instead I see it cropping up in new and more unpleasant ways, particularly in the world of books.  Yet however tempting it is to rail against literary pretentiousness and book snobbery, a more worrying thought occurs as I cast my eye over my own bookshelves – are there times when I am guilty of book snobbishness too?

A couple of months ago, WHSmith was named the most hated shop in the United Kingdom.  My first reaction was agreement as I am far from being a fan of the place myself.  However, I was surprised when a group of authors, including Joanne Harris, leaped to its defence.  They pointed out that WHSmith is the shop where working class people buy the majority of their books, tending to feel intimidated by branches of Waterstone’s.  Harris pointed out that it ‘may be a good time to remind people getting sniffy about WHSmith that 3 in 10 children in this country do not own a single book, and that 1 in 10 adults is functionally illiterate.‘  And suggesting that people use independent bookshops instead just makes you sound like Marie Antoinette advocating cake rather than bread.  If you want to promote literacy, it is important to understand where people feel comfortable accessing reading material.

The last time that I bought a book in WHSmith was in 2013.  I was reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series and it had become like a crack addiction.  Unexpectedly finishing one volume on a Sunday morning and having errands to run, I spotted a branch of Smith’s and parked up quickly in the hope of getting the next book since otherwise I would have to wait an entire week to visit Waterstone’s.  I am not a regular Smith’s shopper.  There are reasons for this.  I don’t buy magazines, I worked out many years ago that chocolate bars are cheaper in Tesco and bottled water in Boots.  Even when it comes to greeting cards, I would have to walk out of my way and the local branch of Paperchase is right by my bus stop.  When you add in the fact that once a book has dropped out of the charts, Smith’s tends not to stock it (at least in the smaller branches) and its appeal to me as a regular book shopping destination is rather minimal.  There is a bigger reason though as to why I don’t really shop there.  When I was growing up, the shop assistants tended to be the same age as me and were even sometimes peers from school who looked down their noses at me.  There was nothing more uncomfortable than trying to weigh up whether to buy a book while Becky Whats-her-name sniggered to her colleague and smirked in my general direction.  I think it was one of the reasons I got myself an Amazon account.  The odd thing is that while I have grown up and am now a young professional, the shop assistants in Smith’s have remained roughly the same age and by association, they bring out the socially awkward teenager in me.  Strangely then, I was put off Smith’s by snobbery – but from the staff.

Still, despite my own negative experience of the brand, I found a lot of the commentary about WHSmith to be rather distasteful.  Coming back at Joanne Harris were comments centred around how books from Smith’s tend to be more commercial fiction and that people who buy books from Smith’s are generally only shopping for Fifty Shades of Grey anyway … well, that is Snobbery.  Capital letter S.  What is undeniable is that WHSmith have worked hard over the years to promote reading, from partnerships with the Richard and Judy Book Club to its more recent Zoe Ball Book Club.  They also support new authors via their Fresh Talent scheme.  Yes, Smith’s does have more commercial fiction, but I have already discussed at length why I find the border between literary/mass market books to be rather arbitrary and anyway – who cares?  If that happens to be the kind of book you like reading, then more power to you.

I sometimes feel that I am not the best placed person to defend commercial fiction as I don’t read a great deal of it myself.  I also don’t really go for Young Adult, Crime or even Fantasy.  I’ve tried it.  It’s not that I dislike all of these, I dip in now and again but I’d be hard pressed to come up with any examples that I’d really enjoyed.  What I don’t like though is when anybody tries to suggest that one type of reading is ‘better’ than another.  I felt so disappointed when the late great Linda Smith put ‘Adults reading Harry Potter’ into Room 101.  Who was she, or indeed anyone, to look down her nose at another person’s enjoyment?  I have experienced a fair amount of inverted snobbery over the years from people passing judgment on my book choices, from my choice aged twelve to read Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (I had enjoyed the BBC adaptation) to even my recent decision to Brood about the Brontës.  I have wanted to curl into a ball when a hairdresser told me that she wouldn’t try to speak to me since the fact I was reading must mean that I was an ‘intellectual’.  It doesn’t matter what people read but it’s bad manners to make someone feel bad for their choices.

Perhaps this is an odd thing for me to say given that I am a book blogger, particularly since I know that I’ve written a few vitriolic reviews over the years.  It’s just that I started the blog because I wanted to write about my own personal responses to books, not to enforce them.  However, do my negative reviews show evidence of Book Snobbery?  When I think about the books that I have truly loathed, the ones that I would quite like to wipe from existence, this comes down to Striped Pyjamas and much of the creative oeuvre of Philippa Gregory.  I decided to reflect on what it was that I disliked to try and see if I was indeed being snobbish.  Striped Pyjamas bothers me because Holocaust denial is a very real problem and when I read that book, I was aghast to discover someone was cutesifying mass murder.  Writing that sentence makes me feel queasy the way I did the first time I read it.  I can’t get past it.  The book disgusts and upsets me on quite an emotional level.  It doesn’t feel like snobbishness, but if it is, I apologise.

When it comes to Philippa Gregory, I’m on more solid territory.  I liked some of her earlier books, just as I liked Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton.  Where Ms Gregory and I run into difficulties though is the point where she started presenting herself as a Serious Historian and implying that her books are based on fact.  I don’t mind her telling a story, but as a History Geek, I do resent her spinning stories that are so unabashedly biased against the House of Lancaster and which insist against logic that Richard III did not kill his nephews.  As with Pyjamas, it’s the Post-Truth element to Gregory’s writing that I don’t like.  It would be fine if she was just another Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt.  It’s not the commercial fiction element, but Gregory pretends that her books are true.  Again, this doesn’t feel snobbish.  Thinking about it, I also remember writing a negative review of commercial fiction writer Dawn O’Porter’s The Cows; my issues were mainly around its various plot holes and weak characterisation.  Weirdly, when I check my Amazon affiliate linkage, three people have ordered a copy of it from this website – my highest-selling title so far.  So … Dawn O’Porter, you owe me one.  Or three.

What I find most abrasive about Book Snobs that I have known over the years, and the reason why I most hope to avoid being among them, is how restrictive their world view seemed to be.  While I might laugh over the quotation of being sure to pick books that would make you look good if you died while reading them, that doesn’t mean that I actually follow the advice.  Reading is about forming connections, having new experiences and discovering empathy.  If you limit yourself to the ‘right’ sort of books, then you are cutting yourself from whole tracts of society.  This is why I do still take a look into Crime or Young Adult every so often – I’m still interested, I’m open to suggestions, it’s just not for me right now.

The side to this which really troubles me though is how the form of the book can prompt the most egregious forms of Book Snobbery.  When I discovered Audible a few years ago, I used to have a regular commenter who would repeatedly query whether I had ‘really’ read a book if I had ‘only’ listened to it.  Despite regular assurances that Audible provides unabridged texts, he remained unconvinced.  I found this mildly offensive for a number of reasons.  Firstly, I grew up with a friend who was visually impaired and given how bulky Braille books tend to be (they are huge) and how long it can take for contemporary fiction to be translated into it, audiobooks were the easiest way for her to get to read the same books as her peer group.  As a teenager who was part of the Harry Potter generation, this was an important factor.  However, even for someone non-visually impaired, Audible offers an added convenience.  You can listen to your book on the most cramped of commutes.  You can listen while completing household jobs.  Myself and my fellow-knitters have often discussed the difficulties of reading and crafting simultaneously and Audible has been a popular solution.  Not every book makes the jump to audio well but the widespread availability of audio fiction can only be a good thing.

What troubles me even more though is that if people are so quick to pass judgment on others for listening to books, how much more difficult must it be for people requiring large print or looking at the quick read section?  I mention these as being more visible than someone listening to a book on headphones.  I am a regular library user, I appreciate them as one of the few remaining public spaces where you can just sit without having to pay for the privilege.  What I have noticed from my prolonged periods spent there however is that people tend to look furtive when they go near the Large Print section.  It was this that got me to thinking about Book Snobbery in the first place.  My mother read to me from the earliest days of my life.  I had memorised most of my books before I knew how to read.  I was a library user from the age of four years old.  For me, visiting a bookshop was and is a treat.  I am confident in scouring the shelves for my next read.  But what if I was from a different background?  What if I was one of the 3 in 10 children who grew up owning no books?  What if I was of the 1 in 10 who was a functioning illiterate?  The supercilious glance of a Book Snob could crush any fleeting inclination to explore further.

I suspect I am not entirely clean of Book Snobbery.  Coming out of an English Literature degree, it would remarkable if I was.  The fact that I tend to look at a book’s publisher before I purchase is probably quite snobbish.  The grammar and punctuation fiend in me is also likely to be another symptom.  Possibly I am also guilty of chasing certain books as milestones of being a ‘real’ reader.  What I would say in my own defence is that I do try to avoid it.  I remind myself repeatedly of Daniel Pennac’s superb 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader.  The tenth of these is the right to not have to defend your tastes.  More pertinently though is the warning which accompanies the Rights – don’t make fun of people who don’t read, or they never will.  Next time you see someone reading a book that you would not choose, remember to smile.  And say nothing.  Reading is one of the loveliest ways to escape from life and we all have the right to pick what we wish and where we wish, whether we shop in Blackwell’s, Waterstone’s or even WHSmith.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone
(Visited 206 times, 3 visits today)

10 thoughts on “Discussion: Snubbing the Book Snobs

  1. Brilliant discussion! I agree, regardless of what people are reading we should celebrate that people are reading. I know it’s a cliche but the world would be such a boring place if we all read and enjoyed the same things. I love it when I meet someone who’s really into horror or romance, two genres I don’t tend to read often, because it lets me into a part of the reading community that I don’t get to experience a lot and I love how knowledgeable some of these readers are about their genre.

    Also I’ve only started listening to audiobooks recently, mainly because I’ve discovered the only place I can concentrate on them is when I have them on while I’m driving, but I’ve been so shocked by the amount of discussions I’ve seen about whether listening to an audiobook ‘counts’ as reading. Firstly, duh yes it does because it’s still consuming a book, and secondly, so what if it doesn’t? They’re not doing any harm and, as you’ve already mentioned, they’re a fantastic way for people who are visually impaired to experience stories. Just let people enjoy things!

    Great post!

    1. Thank you – I’ve had these thoughts for a while and I’ve been struggling to group it together coherently so it’s much appreciated to hear that someone else understood where I was coming from!

      I completely agree that if we all read the same things, the world would be a very boring place. I am always interested by the way that new trends in literature spring up. That’s such a good point about what you learn when you meet someone who is involved in a different part of the reading community to yourself 🙂

      Thank you again for commenting, have a great week!

  2. YES!!!!! This post made me literally fist pump, several times. Seriously, SO well done!! Book snobbery is a very real scourge, and I love how you’ve handled it directly with lots of self-reflection, and yet managed to remain very polite (a lot more than I would have been had I attempted to address the same topic).

    I’ve always tended to use the phrase “literary elitism”, which equates to pretty much the same thing (but perhaps doesn’t capture quite so well the ways in which snobbery can go both ways, as you have done here). I pity book snobs/elitists, on the whole, because I think it must be a very boring way to live (and I hope that their snobbery at least brings them some comfort, which I suppose they need). I find it really confronting when someone I think I know quite well unexpectedly says something rather snobbish – a friend who questions why anyone over the age of 14 would read YA novels, for instance, or a paramour who gave a derisive snort when he saw I was reading a “popular fiction” book (both real examples). It honestly makes me behave more furtively with my reading, and reluctant to discuss books with them (and given that my work and life centers on books, that leaves a pretty big gap in conversation).

    I, too, have questioned many times whether I’m being snobbish/elitist in publishing some critical reviews, especially of popular/commercial. I like to think that I do a good job of being simultaneously very frank about my reasons for not liking a book (poor editing is a big one that might come off as “snobbish”), but also leaving the door open for others to enjoy the book (“it might be better suited to someone who is X age or likes X type of books” etc). I’m sure I fall short now and then, but it’s this type of awareness that sets us apart from the through-and-through book snobs 😉 And the through-and-through book snobs can get in the bin, as far as I’m concerned. Keep up the great work, doll! x

    1. Oh I’m so glad! I did worry about how it would come across so this is very reassuring.

      I really hate it when people make comments about what constitutes good reading – I remember once saying something about how much I love Discworld only for the person I was speaking with to simper and reply, “I only read literary fiction”. I mean, really? And besides, it’s very arbitrary about what that is in the first place. And sometimes popular fiction is popular because it’s actually really enjoyable!

      Thank you too for the advice about self-awareness – I think I have book-snob-guilt at times so it’s good to remember that as long as I’m checking myself every so often that I’m hopefully keeping myself from being a ‘through-and-through’ book snob, because I agree that people like that can get in the bin. Such a helpful comment – much appreciated 🙂

  3. I have to watch myself on this one. I tend to roll my eyes at romance readers. But I had a student devour the Twilight series last year, and I was so angry when her science teacher made fun of her for it. She was READING. I also appreciate the point I’ve read a few times that even if a YA book or piece of pop fiction seems trite or predictable to us as adult readers, readers with less experience might be experiencing the tropes for the first time, and will be able to enjoy them fully.

    I have no idea what WHSmith is, but I imagine it’s rather like our Barnes and Noble. I can’t imagine a bookstore, no matter how “for the masses,” being actively hated! Wow!

    1. That is an excellent point about experiencing tropes for the first time. I also wasn’t a fan of Twilight but I wouldn’t sneer at someone who is enjoying it – I feel so sad when you see someone’s fun spoiled by someone else.
      WHSmith isn’t quite like Barnes and Noble as it’s not really a dedicated bookshop. It does sell books but it also sells greeting cards and magazines. They sell a lot of chocolate too. It’s kind of a newsagent and stationers with books on the side. To be honest, I think that’s their issue – they don’t specialise and so other than magazines, they probably wouldn’t be your go-to for anything. You get them a lot in airports – I even saw one when I was in Australia. They also pop up in hospitals but they attracted a lot of bad press last year because they were selling toothpaste and toothbrushes in hospitals for about ten times the recommended retailer price. They claimed it was an accident but it was fairly clear they were just hiking up the price for people who needed them urgently. So, they haven’t done themselves a lot of favours lately and they do need to consider their business model if they’re going to survive. But they do seem to be a lot better on books than I had realised and I would be sorry to see them go.

  4. This is a fantastic post, and it’s nice to see someone who mostly reads more literary fiction defend people’s right to read whatever they want. I agree that we probably all have SOME degree of book Snobbery in us—Fifty Shades is an example of a book I just don’t get, though I don’t fault anyone for reading it, I suppose—but telling other people that their tastes in books aren’t good enough is not just plain silly, it can be harmful!

    I agree that there’s a difference between snobbishness and saying you don’t like something, though (and expressing why). Everyone’s allowed their opinion—you just should realize that your own thoughts are just that: opinions.

    1. Oh completely – I think that there’s a difference for me between the books that I happened not to like the Boleyn King and the ones that upset me like the Boy in Striped Pyjamas. I am a history nerd and the Boleyn King, despite being hypothetical history, is so rife with things that would never ever happen that I couldn’t get on with it. However, I get that for someone who just wanted a harmless bit of historical fiction and who hasn’t been obsessed with the Tudors since the age of seven, it would be fairly enjoyable – I can’t criticise a book for not appealing to me personally. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas seems by contrast to further Holocaust denial and, for example, I will not be reading it with my son when he gets older. I think it’s important to remember the difference when you’re thinking about why you don’t like a book.
      Thank you for commenting, your thoughts are always very considered 🙂

  5. Hello,
    I realise this post is almost a year old, but I have just recently discovered your blog, and felt the need to comment on this post. I agree that people should be allowed to read whatever they like, and no-one has the right to judge another person on their reading habbits, but I just wanted to thank you for sticking up for audiobooks. Like your friend, I am blind, and therefore would be pretty much at a loss without audiobooks. Of course there is braille, but you are quite right, the size of Braille books are huge, and I tend to like big books, so audio is much easier. I therefore don’t think my reading experience is any less valid or real than someone with a physical book. The only down side to audio is that I am more limited than sighted people in what I can get hold of. I am thinking particularly about non-fiction or new releases which have not yet been recorded, but I guess that is another discussion.
    Thank you very much for posting such thought provoking content on this blog, and for sharing your enthusiasm for literature, feminism and Christianity.

    1. Thank you so much for the lovely comment – this is lovely to read!
      I think I’m going to have to write a separate discussion piece on audiobooks because there’s an entirely separate brand of snobbery around them and it’s just unfair. I agree about the limits of what is available via audio but I think that more is becoming available. I need to do some investigating. Watch this space!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.